How the showdown between Russia and Ukraine could go wrong

A completely 'accidental' war is unlikely, but there is always a risk of miscalculation — on both sides.

How the showdown between Russia and Ukraine could go wrong

Sarah Lain is a Kyiv-based associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

KYIV — For a country claiming it doesn’t want to go to war, Russia’s recent posture toward Ukraine looks awfully bellicose. Russian troops have massed and are building a military camp in the southwestern region of Voronezh, near the border. Russian state TV is priming Russians to expect a Ukrainian offensive.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently warned that renewed war in Ukraine would mean Ukraine’s own destruction. Last week, Dmitry Kozak, the deputy head of Russia’s presidential administration and a key negotiator on Ukraine, reiterated a message from 2014 that if necessary, Moscow would intervene to protect Donbas residents.   

Most observers say this does not necessarily mean imminent invasion, but the fact that Russian intentions are unclear is what is so worrying. The build-up on the border, as well as on annexed Crimea, gives Russia options should it wish to escalate. Russian President Vladimir Putin no doubt wants to maintain some unpredictability, and having such options is crucial for that, now the world is watching. Though a completely “accidental” war is unlikely, there is always a risk of miscalculation or over-reaction as a result.

As tensions rise, confidence-building measures aimed at containing the situation are failing. No stranger to stalemates, the OSCE-led Minsk negotiations have stalled once again. Additional ceasefire measures agreed in July 2020, which stabilized the situation for a few months, are breaking down. Russia has largely ignored a request for clarification over its military activity at the border, which Ukraine had asked for under the Vienna Document.

Some in Moscow claim Ukraine has added to tensions by pivoting to a more “hostile” approach to Russia over the past few months. So far, this is an exaggeration. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has actually been rather restrained in his rhetoric over the Donbas and recent Russian activity.

Certainly, the recent sanctioning of pro-Russian oligarch and Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk and his associate Taras Kozak no doubt irritated the Kremlin, but Moscow has been relatively muted in its public response. Ukraine has played games with its own announcement of ceasefire measures, diverging from the agreed Minsk process language on rules for returning fire, which has not added to trust. (Kyiv did correct themselves in the end.) It should be noted that Russia itself is no stranger to obstructive behavior as well.

Some point to two recently approved Ukrainian strategies as provocative: the strategy for the “de-occupation” and reintegration of Crimea and the recently approved military strategy. Both explicitly mention Russia as a threat.

Despite running a pro-peace election campaign, Zelenskiy has never been quiet about the need for Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine, or about the threat Russian poses to Ukraine’s territorial integrity. His Crimea strategy focuses more on human rights and justice issues, and the military strategy spends a lot of time outlining reform linked to NATO membership aspirations.

Although NATO membership for Ukraine is an absolute red line for Russia, such Ukrainian aspirations are nothing new and thus are not a surprise — the documents are hardly a call to war. Still, one cannot assume how Moscow might interpret things. 

There has been disappointment too in Moscow that Zelenskiy has not simply implemented the Minsk Agreements. These call for Ukraine to grant the Russian-backed, so-called “republics” special administrative rights, while reintegrating them into Ukraine. This would allow Russia, in theory, to have permanent and significant influence on the country through the so-called republics, but with Ukraine paying for them instead of Russia.  

The lack of clarity over Russia’s intent and game-plan, mixed with rhetoric reminiscent of 2014, means tensions are running high. This is when miscalculations can happen.

There is a fine line between deterrence and what is interpreted as offensive action. Everyone is watching what Russia might do, without much of a plan as to what the response would be should it escalate significantly. This also adds to the unpredictability. Although it is unclear what Moscow would gain from genuinely escalating in the Donbas, it is also important to remember the Kremlin has its own interests and threat perception — and every scenario should be considered, even those that may not seem likely. 

Source : Politico EU More